How to be a wok star
There's more to wok cookery than standard stir-fries. Lisa Markwell gets a masterclass from the Chinese experts dishing up delicious tips
Anyone can cook with a wok. But cooking properly with a wok? Well, I've long suspected that there's more to it than a) open cellophane bag of stir-fry vegetables, b) stir-fry it. Even more than the option of c) pour over sachet of sauce…
If cookery teacher Jeremy Pang knows most of us are stir-fry saddos, he isn't sniffy about it. At just 28, Pang, who's bursting with energy and has a nice line in humour, created School of Wok in 2009 as a private-lesson business after forays into marketing and travel journalism. In the early days, he travelled to people's homes armed with wok and ingredients to teach; now, the School has opened a proper school in London's Covent Garden with the aim of fun, fast-moving classes for all.
Pang comes from three generations of Chinese chefs, so he knows his spring onions. With his globetrotting young partners Nev and Stefan, they cover pretty much the entire Asian culinary sphere – the school offers lessons in Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Thai cooking. Anything they can't teach, they have guest chefs, sushi experts, for instance.
But on this Friday evening, I'm starting with a three-hour course called "Understanding the Wok". Shamed by the rusting authentic number and the very non-authentic non-stick number in my kitchen, I think it best to get back to basics.
There's time before the class starts for Pang to give me a few pointers about nearby Chinatown (those who do the all-day-Saturday Flavours of China course get a full walking tour and shopathon, followed by a lesson). He tells me where the good pork buns are and which supermarket has the best bok choi and morning glory; "The name has two meanings," he deadpans. He shares where he goes for the best dumplings and a bubble tea; and why our crispy duck is never like real Chinese crispy duck (it's in the method of slaughter, apparently).
Behind an alluring "shopfront" of woks and kitchen kit are two kitchens, and in them the first surprise: induction hobs. I'd expected to be told a fierce gas flame was the first rule of wok cooking. Turns out the "height of the fire", Pang's watchword for successful frying, is nothing to do with flames. It's about how you control the heat in the wok by moving it closer and farther away from the heat.
But first, I learn about the wok – little tips such as keeping it on the heat while you wash it (as the water boils, it cleans the surface) and drying it on the heat too (to stop rusting). Fancy-surfaced woks are given short shrift – pretty much any cheap metal wok will do if you bother to look after it.
Then it's into prep. "Wok cooking is 90 per cent preparation time, 10 per cent cooking time," Pang explains. Sounds boring, but when later we're a blur of ladles and ingredients, having the spring onions sliced and the sauces mixed is crucial.
What I'm cooking seems a bit "straight": egg-fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, and prawns with ginger and spring onion. But through these basics I learn all the technique I need. It takes brinkmanship to wait until the wok is smoking before adding oil, then waiting for the oil to smoke too, before adding the egg. I learn to love the splutter. Rough-and-tumbling the rice gets that blissful, each-grain-separate result and soon I'm adding peas and spring onion, before liberally shaking light soy sauce and sesame oil over my dish. A few tosses off the heat and voilà! Perfect egg-fried rice.
Pang thinks I'm ready for some deep-frying. Bite-sized pieces of chicken (after a quick lesson in boning thighs with six cuts – impressive) are coated with soy and seasonings, then dredged with frightening amounts of potato starch. This fine powder is what will give the chicken its crunch. But unlike MSG, it's not dodgy.
Small batches go into the boiling oil (you can tell it's ready when a wooden spoon or chopstick placed in the liquid has tiny bubbles fizzing around it) and puff up. Once golden brown, they're placed on kitchen paper to be stir-fried later.
Then assembly time. The sweet and sour sauce has ketchup as a major ingredient because, Pang explains, it's very popular in Hong Kong, an area influenced by the West. With rice vinegar and sugar (and a dash of dark soy sauce, after being briefed on when to use light and when dark), it's a deliciously mouth-puckering mix.
No pineapple chunks, just rough-hewn bits of onion, are frazzled, before the sauce is poured in. It bubbles furiously, the chicken is added and one, two, three tosses – the dish is ready. "The secret of a delicious sweet and sour is to have just enough sauce to wrap around the crispy pieces of meat," Pang says. It's heaven; I'll never go back to gloopy takeaways again.
The prawn dish is also the work of moments, once the prepped vegetables and the marinated seafood hit the wok. It's been 20 minutes' cooking time, tops, and I'm sitting down to three dishes.
Pang supplies the wine and the final tips. Keep the "holy trinity" of ingredients – garlic, ginger and spring onions – to hand, and experiment. I'm itching to get to a Chinese supermarket to load up on rice wine, potato starch, different soy sauces and, perhaps, one of those natty long-handled metal "spiders" to scoop my deep-frying chunks out.
It's been an extremely fruitful Friday night. After a spree at Wing Yip the next day, I cook my teenagers the three dishes. They come to the table grumbling about missing their weekly takeaway but are silenced by the soft rice, fragrant prawns and crisp, tangy chicken.
My teenage son even expresses interest in coming back to School of Wok with me. The fast, fun approach seems ideal for young cooks, although with courses in various street foods, curries, party feasts, sushi, soups and more, I'm quite keen myself. And my wok's already taking on that well-loved, well-used burnished look, which makes me inordinately proud.
Courses start at £45 for a quick-fire one-hour lesson, to £160 for the all-day course. Private hire is available. For more information, see schoolofwok.co.uk
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